Treason in My Breast (Anthony Gilbert)

Ordinary housewife Janet Scott suspects something is badly wrong in the house opposite. A terrified girl stands at the window, trying desperately to telephone for help; as Janet watches, a thin brown hand falls on the girl’s shoulder, and the curtains are firmly closed. Later that week, the girl drinks an overdose of sleeping draught, and dies. Was the girl simply a mental patient, or is something more serious afoot?

Treason in My Breast is slow-moving and laborious, but it contains a particularly nasty and plausible plot to secure an inheritance – an updated version of The Woman in White with a couple of twists. The Collins blurb called it “a first-rate mystery”. Those who want one, however, will be frustrated; the villains are known from the beginning.

Few of Gilbert’s early books are whodunits; they are detective stories or police procedurals in which the villain is known from the start. By removing the whodunit element, Gilbert has taken away most of the fun of the detective story. Freeman succeeded because he showed the crime from the criminal’s perspective and then from the detective’s. A riddle in which the answer is known from the beginning – a mystery without a mystery – and which lacks compensatory character interest or much suspense seems rather pointless.

Only in the mid-1940s (the era of He Came by Night and The Scarlet Button, 1944; The Black Stage, 1945; Death in the Wrong Room, 1947) does Gilbert turn extensively to the whodunit, and then with great skill. “How well she knows her job, how perennially she keeps us guessing,” Time and Tide wrote in 1950.


1938 Collins

“Few murderers would go unhung,” said plump, cynical Arthur Crook, “if people used their eyes more.  It’s the man selling violets in the gutter, the woman exercising her Pekinese, the chap reading the midday racing news in the Tube who actually have the chance to spot the murderer.  They’re the people he can’t guard against.”  On this idea Anthony Gilbert has based his new detective story, and a jolly good one it is.  Arthur Crook is a delightful nosey-parker.  You will like his blustering humour and bull-dog tenacity, so hurry up and meet him in this first-rate mystery.


Observer (Torquemada, 24th April 1938)


Anthony Gilbert is perhaps not quite so profound as usual in Treason in My Breast, but he has thought out a good story and tells it in his own thorough and discriminating English.  It is not the first time that he has taken a theme of Victorian melodrama and made the horror of it live by up-to-date variation.  Treason in My Breast falls into three parts.  In the first, a not very sympathetic little lady sees more than she should in the window of a flat opposite, and persuades the reluctant Crook, “a fat cynical lawyer with a shrewd face and a lascivious eye”, to assist her in a murder hunt.  In the second part, the hunt proceeds fairly merrily, but the crime puts on a more damnable complexion.  In the third part, just as the hunt is drawing to a close and virtue is about to triumph, the reader esteems himself to be suddenly plunged once more into tragedy.  It is in an atmosphere of rather grim humour that he finds out his mistake.

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 30th April 1938)

The two chief characters in this story are the murderer and a genial, but not too scrupulous, lawyer, called Arthur Crook.  The former has every reason to hope his cunning crime will never be discovered.  The latter takes for granted on slender information that there is a case of murder, and has to discover the motive, method and identity of the victim in that order.

The scheme to get rid of a young woman without unpleasant inquiries is a clever one.  But it is to be hoped that in real life the most stolid staff of a mental home would include one person at least willing to give a sympathetic hearing to the protestations of an inmate.  The book is written in the author’s most entertaining manner.

Time and Tide: Quite the best so far of Mr. Gilbert’s books.

3 thoughts on “Treason in My Breast (Anthony Gilbert)

  1. Thanks for the review – sounds like this is one to miss, because I prefer the whodunits. In your opinion, what would be the best of Gilbert’s puzzle mysteries? Would it be those you named: ‘He Came by Night’, ‘The Scarlet Button’, ‘The Black Stage’ and ‘Death in the Wrong Room’?


    1. Gilbert’s two best puzzle mysteries (of those I’ve read!) are The Clock in the Hat-Box and The Mouse Who Wouldn’t Play Ball. But one’s on safe ground from the mid-’40s. Several reviews from then on compare her to Christie for clever plotting, and she was praised by the likes of Boucher and Crispin. Plenty to discover!


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